Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Letter from California-January 31, 2005

Apparently, there’s gold in them thar’ delinquents. Who knew that the solution to getting enough money to fund the schools would be found in the bathroom where the bad kids hang out and smoke? About a week ago, a story came out that San Jose Unified School District’s Great Loose Change Hunt came to an end without fully funding the district for all its needs, so it had to initiate Item B on its list: cracking down on truancy.

Let’s first be clear and say that no one favors truancy and we’d all like to see it eliminated. Actually, on second thought, truants certainly favor truancy, so I guess that’s not technically true. Also, neglectful parents of frequently truant kids probably don’t care either way. If their kid is truant long enough, it keeps them out of those pesky parent-teacher conferences, which is a break they’ll often fill with episodes of COPS, either as viewers or special guest stars.

Come to think of it, parents of children other than the truant children might actually be rooting for a truancy problem. If the hoodlums of their child’s school are running shirtless through the streets during school hours, they won’t be there to tease the other kids for their good teeth, clean clothes and chance at a decent life. Assuming you weren’t the ne’er do well hooky player yourself, you can probably remember a playground thug you would have gladly sent on permanent vacation when you were a kid. Now you can look back and know that eventually, your hard work and patience paid off and there’s nothing that bully can do to you anymore. Unless he joined Delta Force.

So I guess the lesson is that unless you want to spend your adult life running from someone who can fashion a torture device from chewing gum, pipe cleaners and a car battery, you might want to leave the truants be. Why then has San Jose decided to go after them so hard? They’re trying to solve a financial problem, but it seems like chasing kids down and dragging them back to their Advanced Theoretical Physics classes would drain money, not save it.

Wrong. Not when the State doles out the educational dough based on the number of students you’ve got and the number of days they attend. In San Jose’s case, it works out to about $40 a day for every student that shows up, so it’s understandable that they’re concerned. I knew a guy in junior high school who showed up right at the beginning of September, got signed up for classes and then vanished again til sometime in June when it was time for us to go to the next grade. How did that guy get promoted? If they had paid out using San Jose’s system back then, the school would never have gotten the Canteen repainted like they did that year.

Of course, divvying up the resources was simpler then. When the year started, they handed you an abacus, two pieces of chalk, papyrus reeds, and a copy of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album and sent you to homeroom. For us, $40 was the number at the top of the big paper thermometer for the fundraiser we were doing. If all it took to put that kind of money together was for the teachers to say Chris Jackson (name changed due to Delta Force regulations) showed up when he really didn’t, we’d have considered that a win-win: we’ve got the money and he’s free to spend the day casing potential robbery targets while it’s still light. The system works.

For San Jose, though, it’s a different problem. Being in Silicon Valley, San Jose is home to some of the greatest high-tech entrepreneurs in the world, like Steve Jobs, who started Apple Computer in his Silicon Valley garage. Each San Jose school could be housing a genius who with the right education will bring the world a cell phone you can swallow, pie-making robots, or some other crazy doodad you don’t know you need yet. Failing to educate such a child could mean the human race itself suffers.

Failing to educate Chris Jackson, which pretty much happened anyway, would have deprived the world of untold wedgies and swirlies for nerds, whose self-esteem would therefore have remained artificially high. It’s a bit like wolves culling the deer population. You do have a bit of sympathy for the deer, but it’s nature’s way.

So I applaud San Jose for its creative solution to the age-old problem of keeping kids in school who would rather be fencing gold chains to out-of-town pawnbrokers. More power to them. But if they really want results overnight, I have one simple suggestion.

Split the 40 bucks with the truants. Bad kids love pocket change.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Letter from California-January 24, 2005

If you get your news about California politics from this column, you’re sure to have learned at least one thing: California politicians really have guts. Courage is their middle name. For example, that time my own Assemblywoman took on the dark forces of tanning salons, she really showed the world that she wouldn’t stand idly by while 15 year olds got artificial tans simply because their parents said it was ok. Or how about the time the city of Laguna Niguel bravely stood up against the dangerous chemical dihydrogen oxide in their city, until someone looked it up and found out that dihydrogen oxide is another way of saying H20. Then, of course, there was the time the Assembly rigged the district lines to make sure they’d never lose their jobs, making chumps out of all the voters in the process. Brave? You bet. When they all get together in Sacramento, you’d swear the SuperFriends had abandoned the Hall of Justice in favor of the California State House. If you ever found yourself tied to the train tracks by a mustachioed villain, they’d come to your rescue. First, they’d pass a strongly worded resolution against tying people to train tracks, but being careful not to offend men (or women) with moustaches or to suggest that people shouldn’t ride on public transportation just because of the occasional track-tying incident. Then, they’d keep up the pressure, by piling into taxpayer-owned Lincoln Navigators and getting some big sandwiches at a Jerry’s Deli near the State House. You’re picking up the tab on that, too.

So I actually find myself in support of a proposed new tax in San Francisco that would add a 17-cent tax for every bag you use at the grocery store. In a way. The new tax is designed to discourage people from using plastic grocery bags. Those bags, it is said, cost the city about 6.5 cents per bag to clean up and recycle, and they’re tired of doing all that work for just the money they already get from business tax, income tax, sales tax, property tax, federal and state grants and other fees, including fines for leaving plastic bags on the ground. Still, like I said, I find myself somewhat in support of the new tax for one simple reason: you can see exactly what they’re up to.

That’s right. Everybody in San Francisco will become aware of the extra dough they’re paying for the bag tax or they’ll be aware that they need to dig through the drawer under the sink for a handful of their own. Governments can often be sneaky, hiding the costs of their crazy schemes from you in a dozen fiendish ways, like getting people to vote on a bond to pay for something, guaranteeing that no one understands it but somehow feels that it’s free money. Another strategy is to give something to you and charge someone else, or vice versa. That happens, for example, when taxes are taken from one area and put into the “general fund,” which handles a variety of state expenses including Lincoln Navigators, pastrami Reubens, and the occasional school and police station. Then, there’s the primitive but effective method of making financial commitments and just not paying for them at all. Everyone’s a winner with that one!

Yet, in this case, it’s right out in the open. You pay for play. If you can’t get Woody Harrelson to hand-weave you some hemp grocery bags, you’re going to be out a few coins. If you don’t like it, you know where to mail your love letters. If you think it’s great, you’ll buy a handful of extras, take them home and set them on fire, guaranteeing those bags won’t pollute the ocean any time soon.

So no matter how much of a recycler you are, you can at least respect the fact that the City is looking you in the eye while it puts a gun to your head and shakes you down for a few extra pennies. On the other hand, this new tax would apply to both plastic and paper bags, even though the proponents admit the paper bags don’t kill the hundreds of innocent great white whales that plastic bags do. Why tax paper too? Because why not, that’s why.

So give them credit for having the courage of their convictions, which are basically that all residents should pay them three times more money than it costs the City to clean up a plastic bag, even when the bag isn’t plastic or they don’t have to clean it up. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking there’s some special logic for this particular tax as opposed to, say, a ten-cent tax every time you flush a toilet in the park. Or a buck twenty for putting anything larger than two chiclets in a public trash can. Or a fiver for tracking mud in on your shoes from another city.

Why are they doing this? Because why not? That’s why. Those big sandwiches aren’t going to pay for themselves.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Letter from California-January 16, 2005

What do a fighter pilot, heart surgeon, concert pianist and a guy with a stack of brochures have in common? They all spoke at a career day held at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School in Palo Alto, California a couple weeks ago. Brochure guy, whose name is Robert Fried, may not have had the impressive credentials the other speakers did, but he proved that a good brochure can make a big impression. Just because no one has any idea what you do, it doesn’t mean your career day talk is going to be a big bust. (More about that last part later.)

After all, nobody interviewed the F-16 pilot for the local news and the San Francisco Chronicle didn’t pay a bit of attention to the totally uninteresting heart surgeon. They all spoke to Fried though, thanks to those amazing brochures.

Before you read further, please flash back with me to Career Day in middle school. At that age, an actual job seems like something dirty that adults are forced to do once they realize no one thinks they’re cool. By the time you’re that old, you assure yourself, you’ll be a famous rock star with so much money that heart surgeons will be your butlers. You’ll fly your private F-16 to your 21st birthday party inside a volcano resort, where your friends will agree that people with jobs are stupid and that you’re the coolest guy in history. Cooler even than Rick Springfield (or Justin Timberlake, if you prefer a more recent Regrettable Pop Star.) Then, the tall, sweaty kid in the next seat jars you with his elbow, and you wake up from your daydream. Pretty soon you find yourself actually wishing to go back to class, because if you have to listen to these stupid adults with their miserable jobs flying jets and saving lives, your face will turn to dust with boredom.

Fried’s brochures, though, managed to reach across the generation gap of extreme boredom and connect. How did he do it, you ask? Simply by making a list of careers the children might consider if the rich food and hectic travel schedule of being a rock star isn’t for them. On this list he included two that hadn’t been approved by the PTA: exotic dancer and stripper. That’s funny, because I always thought “exotic dancer” and “stripper” meant the same thing. “Exotic dancer,” I figured, was just a way for strippers to make their grandmothers think they were performing at Carnegie Hall with the King of Persia instead of appearing at the Dollhouse with Lexus and Destiny during Happy Hour.

Anyway, some bright-eyed young fellow (and though it’s not written anywhere in the story, I feel 100% confident it wasn’t a girl) asked Fried why he had listed these on his brochure. He replied that stripping makes a fine career for someone with the right gifts. By “gifts,” he meant breasts. A 14-year old named Jason Garcia recounts that Fried said, “for every two inches up there, it’s another $50,000.” Wow, Jason has a pretty specific memory about that part of the talk. Let’s quiz him and see if he remembers what the concert pianist said about the going rate for a good flautist these days. Students say Fried claims that the right person can make up to $250,000 a year.

Wait a second. That math doesn’t work. If 2 inches in the chest gets you $50 grand, there’s this big guy who works at the AM/PM near my office that should be a millionaire. Just $250K a year for a person with his “gifts” would be an insult. Ok, maybe Fried wasn’t talking about him, since he comes to work everyday in the same Houston Oilers sweatshirt. I don’t know how to tell him that the Oilers moved to another state and changed their team name during the first Clinton Administration. Still, I don’t think Fried’s numbers add up.

Parents, as you might imagine, had a thing or two to say about the talk, mostly unprintable. The Principal blamed a substitute teacher for the problem, saying that if the real teacher hadn’t called in sick, this awful thing wouldn’t have happened. Reportedly, the substitute vowed never to come back after having to take the fall for Fried’s flub. Also, she reports she’s done the math and figures she can make $150K a year and that beats the heck out of what the school was paying. Ok, that part’s not true. Probably.

You can understand the parents’ anger, but beyond being offensive, Fried’s advice just seems dopey. He may have a highly developed fantasy life in which chesty co-eds training to become heart surgeons and fighter pilots put themselves through Genius State University by stripping, but back here in the less bow-chicka-bow-bow world outside Robert Fried’s dreams, stripping is generally a lousy job done by desperate people. Notice how you never read stories in Time magazine about strippers retiring to luxurious country homes at 27? Where’s all that righteous dough going?

My guess: career counseling and loose-fitting shirts.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Letter from California-January 10, 2005

When I lived in Japan, I traveled a lot on the “bullet train.” It passed through a small town, Ogori, about 10 miles away. I lived in a town called Yamaguchi, the biggest town in the area and more than big enough to pick on pipsqueak towns like Ogori. For some reason, though, the “bullet train” only ran through Ogori, so local travelers had to meet the “bullet train” there. Of course, it’s not really called the “bullet train,” but if I told you the real name of the train, you’d wonder if I had just cursed you out in Japanese. Shinkansen. See what I mean?

Anyway, my Japanese assistant had picked me up from the station one day, and as we were driving home, she said, “Have you heard that Ogori is going to become part of Yamaguchi?” “That’s great,” I said, “think of how convenient it will be when the ‘bullet train’ comes straight to Yamaguchi!” She looked at me suspiciously. She might have been trying to decide if I was stupid or just really not funny. On the other hand, she might have been trying to figure out what this mysterious “bullet train” thing was, since of course, the Yakitoriya is not really called the “bullet train.”

Eventually, we moved on to other topics. She’d heard enough of my crazy train gun schemes, and I was ready for a hot bowl of Shinkansen and some rest. As far as I know, Ogori is still fiercely independent and Yamaguchi residents still have the inconvenience of driving to another town to catch the “bullet train” or Tamanegi, as its known in Japan.

Thanks to TV, many people in this country are now aware that there’s a place called Orange County, or “the O.C.” somewhere near Los Angeles. In Orange County, there’s a city called Anaheim. In this city, there is a professional baseball team that used to be called the Anaheim Angels. Before that, they were called the California Angels. Before that, they played in Los Angeles and were called the Los Angeles Angels. That last one makes sense in a way, since “Los Angeles” means “The Angels.” It’s like calling your team the Lumberton Lumbermen or the Rocket City Rockets or the Piranhaville Piranhas.

But Anaheim? I admit it doesn’t have quite the ring that “Los Angeles” does, and to my knowledge, it doesn’t happen to mean “Angels.” To me, it sounds like a town in Wisconsin where they brew beer and cook a mean bratwurst, but for all I know, it means “stomach cramp” in German. Or it could be a curse, like Shinkansen.

Last year, a man named Arte Moreno bought the Anaheim Angels, and his strategy has been to make them into a team that’s not just for the overly dramatic, very adult-looking teenagers of “the O.C.” and their clueless, self-indulgent parents. Instead, Moreno wants a team that truly belongs to the City of Angels, which is more than big enough to pick on pipsqueak towns like Anaheim.

As a first step, he sent his multi-millionaire players out to commit vandalism. They might have thought it was a loyalty test to the crazy, rich weirdo who just bought the team. Perhaps, but they also made TV commercials of their crimes, painting halos on the “A”s of signs at the city limits of Los Angeles County towns. For example, Pasadena’s three A’s all got a halo, and each of the three players who defaced city property got a day in jail. More than worth it for a good commercial, especially if you’re rich enough to be able to get others to do the time for you.

Now, he’s decided to go all the way and just change the name of the team to the Los Angeles Angels, though they’ll still be playing in that other place. Sure, he made an agreement to keep “Anaheim” in the team’s name, but that’s no problem. Moreno just hired a couple of sharp marketing guys, a band of lawyers, and probably a good caterer, and pretty soon, they had a solution.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim were born.

Huh? Sure, Moreno agreed to keep “Anaheim” in the name, but he didn’t say where and he didn’t agree not to add some other words in. Words like “Los Angeles.”

He should have hired me though, because Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim could use some work. How about: Los Angeles Angels, now with Real Anaheim. Or take a page from the College Bowl Games: Los Angeles Angels, Presented by Anaheim. Finally, he could just be obnoxious and say: Los Angeles Angels, No Way are We from Anaheim. Hey, he just said he’d keep the word “Anaheim” in the name.

Is it a good strategy? I’m guessing it is. Laugh if you will, but words influence how people think. Moreno may be a sneaky rat, as the City of Anaheim alleges in its lawsuit, but he’s probably got this one right.

Hey, and think of how convenient it will be now that we have two baseball teams in Los Angeles. If only I could get to the games on a “bullet train,” which is actually called the Teriyaki.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Letter from California-January 3, 2005

Many Americans spend the morning of January 1st sleeping off the results of their New Years Rockin’ Eve watching Dick Clark drop the crystal ball over Times Square. If you’re like them, when you do wake up, you find that New Year’s Day doesn’t offer much in the way of festivities. All the good Christmas dinner leftovers have vanished. The Christmas tree just sits there and mocks you with its useless twinkling. The gift from the always-late relative has arrived and been revealed to be decorative snowman coasters. Even the Christmas Mischief I talked about last week has worn off, as the sad reality of going back to school lulls the kids into a stupor. You might see them frozen in place halfway down the hall to their rooms. They’re staring at the wall as though the computer in their brains crashed. That’s because it takes all their processing power to remain in denial that school’s really going to start less than 48 hours.

Sure, you can watch Bowl Games on TV, but so what? Ever since the number of Bowls increased from a dozen big games to the current level of about 90, getting to a Bowl game doesn’t say much about a school’s football program. Almost everyone goes. All these Bowls need new names, too. How about the We-Had-Enough-Money-To-Fly-The-Team-To-Florida Bowl or the Slightly Better Than Average Bowl? Anyway, I’d appreciate the honesty of that. The Poulan Weed Eater Bowl (I didn’t make that up) doesn’t tell me anything, except that there’s absolutely no reason to watch the game.

So by late morning, many people resort to rearranging the snowman coasters and morosely watching the clock until the Holidays come to an unceremonious end. Here in Pasadena, California, however, we have this little parade every year to delay the end of the fun for a few hours more. New York may have a great party on New Year’s Eve, but New Year’s Day belongs to us. The Rose Parade started more than a hundred years ago, as Pasadena’s best-respected and snootiest residents draped their horse-drawn wagons in roses as they visited neighbors on the first of the New Year. Eventually, that turned into 60 foot motorized carts carrying gigantic seed and flower covered Animatronic pandas. It’s quite a spectacle.

More than half a million people come out to see it, including about half that number who sleep on the streets of Pasadena overnight. This army of the temporarily homeless starts gathering at about noon on New Year’s Eve with their sleeping bags, hibachis and rain ponchos. As the day goes on, it turns into a festive street party for the very, very dirty. By about three in the morning, it’s like a scene from some science fiction movie where the earth is so overcrowded that rich people hire poor people to be furniture.

It all pays off for these miserable wretches, though, when at 8 o’clock the next morning, they find themselves with a front row seat to the parade. They can laugh at the showered and well-rested chumps who paid $50 for a ticket. After laughing at the chumps, they can go back to looking for a Port-A-Potty that hasn’t overflowed. It’s a great time for the whole family.

Most people, of course, won’t actually attend the parade, but almost everyone has seen it on TV at one time or another. That brings me to what I believe to be the real reason that we hold it: envy. The people who founded Pasadena in the 19th century came from the Midwest. This time of year in Michigan or Illinois, sleeping on the streets overnight isn’t the laughing party it is here. It’s a lot more-there’s a word on the tip of my tongue-cold. On a typical January 1st, it’s about 116 degrees warmer on Pasadena’s Orange Grove Boulevard (where the parade starts) than, for example, on Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Thermal Underwear Avenue. I think the Rose Parade was those earlier settlers’ way of sending a “postcard” of sorts to their friends back home. On the front of that postcard, you’ll see a flower-covered float against a picturesque mountain backdrop. On the back of that postcard, you’ll find a handwritten message saying, “Enjoying the snow, suckers?”

It’s not cold everywhere in America on New Year’s Day of course. But where it’s not cold, it’s probably Florida, and unless you’ve got tickets to the Poulan Weed Eater Bowl, you’re faced with precious few options. Inevitably, you’ll turn on the TV, stumble across the Rose Parade and stew about how much fun we all look like we’re having. Yes, it’s true. For fun, the Rose Parade tops anything on New Year’s Day.

After all, nothing beats a night on the sidewalk in a sleeping bag and sharing portable toilets with a quarter million people too cheap to buy a ticket.

To take a serious moment, lots of people in South Asia are going through something much worse than a night on a Pasadena sidewalk, so if you haven’t already, find a way to spare what you can, even if it’s just a little, to help. One easy way is just to go to www.amazon.com. They’ve made it super easy to do, so please help out.